FORT MEADE, Md. — After Col. Jeannie Leavitt finished pilot training at the top of her class in 1992, she was given her first choice of aircraft, with a few restrictions. Her first choice, the F-15 Strike Eagle, wasn’t yet an option for female pilots.
“I was told you finished No. 1, but you cannot pick a fighter,” Leavitt said. “You cannot pick a bomber. You cannot pick a special ops aircraft. There was a whole list of aircraft I couldn’t fly, and I was directed to choose among the other aircraft.”
Fortunately for Leavitt and all female Airmen with similar aspirations, the following year then-Defense Department Secretary Les Aspin ordered all service branches to drop restrictions on women flying combat missions. Leavitt became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and later the service’s first woman to graduate from the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Almost two decades later, she’s been the nation’s first female fighter wing commander since she assumed command of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., in 2012.
While she recognizes her place in Air Force history, Leavitt prefers emphasizing her role as an officer and commander. When she learned she would be flying the F-15 while she was in the middle of T-38 Talon pilot instructor training at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Leavitt didn’t care about publicity or the chance to make history. She just wanted to fly in fighters.
“When we first discussed it, the individual from headquarters I was talking to mentioned there would be a lot of publicity since I would be the first (woman),” she said. “What I told him was I didn’t want the publicity, but I really want to fly fighters. The thing was, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. It was part of who I was and what I wanted to do. The notoriety and publicity wasn’t what I wanted, but it came due to the timing.”
Not everyone was happy about the defense secretary’s decision, and Leavitt had to prove herself to those who questioned her abilities because of her gender.
“A lot of times people were resistant because it was change, and a lot of times people don’t like change,” she said. “Some people weren’t in favor of the change that happened and didn’t want women flying fighters. In many cases when I’d show up, once they saw I was competent, and I was a skilled pilot, and I wasn’t trying to change their whole world, they became much more accepting of me.”
Leavitt flew more than 2,500 hours in the F-15, including 300 combat hours, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells, 9th Air Force commander, flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon as an operations officer with Leavitt during Operation Southern Watch in 1996.
He recalls surprise when he first saw her at a mass premission briefing because he didn’t know any women were deployed in the area of responsibility at that time. But the surprise soon turned into admiration as he observed Leavitt, especially during a mission supporting a Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 during a threat of an Iraqi Roland surface-to-air missile. He could sense her professionalism and skill as he listened to tapes of her radio calls during the debriefing after the mission.
“I remember thinking how cool and calm she sounded during the entire time,” Wells said. “It was all just a very professional, well-run response to a potential threat, and I remember thinking at that time, ‘This female fighter pilot is going to go far in our Air Force.’”
He also described the young F-15 pilot as “a great wingman,” a trait he thinks will serve her well as a commander.
“We value in our young officers the ability to be in the right place at the right time,” Wells said. “That’s what a real wingman does. At the time, she was a great wingman, which in my view, makes her a better leader. Because you really have to know how to follow before you can lead. You have to understand what Airmen are thinking and how your Airmen are dealing with issues and what your young Airmen are focused on. Now having been a great wingman, she can be a great commander.”
When Wells introduced Leavitt at her change-of-command ceremony at Seymour Johnson AFB in June, he chose his words carefully. Despite the historical significance of her career, Leavitt prefers recognition as an Air Force officer and commander. Wells chose remarks that would strike the same tone.
“I had some very specific things I wanted to say about her, and how I had seen her, not only in combat during Southern Watch, but also from kind of following her career,” Wells said. “What I did not want to do in my speech was to highlight the fact that she was the first female commander. I was very sensitive to say the Air Force actually picked the right person to be in the right job at the right time, which I think speaks more for her as a professional Air Force officer, who, oh, by the way, just happens to be a female.”
Leavitt now commands one of only three Air Force units with the Strike Eagle, along with 5,000 active-duty members and 12,000 civilians. Looking back on the progress women have made in her 20 years in the Air Force, the biggest difference she’s seen is women in fighter squadrons are no longer unusual as she was in 1993.
“One thing that’s changed is women are no longer a novelty,” Leavitt said. “When I started flying fighters in 1993, there were no other women. So there were no female instructor pilots, no flight commanders and no squadron commanders. So it was quite a novelty to have a female in the fighter squadron. The good news is this opportunity opened up, and quite a few women followed in my path.”